Appointment in Tehran

By James Stejskal – If like me you remember the 1979 episode when radical Iranian students seized the US embassy in Tehran and took more than 50 Americans hostage, you’ll read James Stejskal’s riveting new thriller with an increasing sense of foreboding. That’s especially if you also recall that the US military launched a rescue mission that came to a disastrous end in the desert south of Tehran. Ultimately, the American hostages—many of them diplomats—were held for 444 days, until the inauguration of a new American president, Ronald Reagan. (The rescue of several Americans who escaped the embassy invasion and hid in the Canadian embassy was the subject of the highly entertaining 2012 film, Argo.)

Given that Stejskal’s characters are smart and skilled Special Forces men, members of Delta Force, I was interested in how he’d handle the botched rescue. No revisionist history here. His description is an accurate picture of how it happened, and, perhaps more important, why it happened: an overly complex strategy, contingency planning failures, and sheer bad luck.

As real events simmer in the story’s background, Stejskal’s characters, led by Master Sergeant Kim Beck and Staff Sergeant Paul Stavros, have a lot of work to do. First, they undergo specific and intensive training in skills likely necessary for the rescue attempt: close quarter battle marksmanship, casing a target location, working as a team following a target through the city without being detected. Fascinating. Naturally, these skills come into play before the story ends.

Even though the Delta team members are not part of the main rescue force headed for disaster in the desert, they have several critical jobs. They must make on-site assessments of the situation where Americans are being held (the embassy and the Iranian Foreign Minister’s office). They must double-check the adequacy and security of sites and logistics for extracting the hostages. It’s dangerous undercover work. Iran isn’t just hostile, it would welcome the chance to make political hay out of the capture of American spies.

And that’s not all. An army intelligence operation has smuggled a tactical nuclear weapon into Iran to be used against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and the Americans want their bomb back at all costs. A traitor within US European forces has told the Soviets about the weapon, and they want it too. While this part of the story is purely fictional, the accuracy with which Stejskal portrays real events adds to the credibility of the entire plot.

This then is the Delta Force mission: backstop the rescue efforts, extracting the diplomats held at the foreign minister’s office, find that nuclear device, and move it out of the country. Any or all of this could go badly in so many ways.

Like his previous thriller involving many of the same characters, A Question of Time, this story is a pure adventure. It’s as much a political thriller as a military one, and you become a frustrated observer of the way bureaucracies tie themselves up in knots. Stejskal is a former CIA officer and US Army Special Forces member who had assignments worldwide, which has helped him create a plausible and exciting story.

Order here from Amazon.

Where Stories Come From

If you write short stories, you know that typing “The End” is really the beginning. From there, it’s often a long haul to find just the right spot (i.e., appreciative editor) for your tale. And, you may end up re-working it a bit; as time passes, you may hear a few shortcomings crying out for revision.

Even when a story is written in response to a request for works of a specific type, or on a specific theme, or in a specific time period, acceptance isn’t guaranteed. I insulate myself against the pain of possible rejection by keeping track of the next place(s) I should send a story. If it comes back to me, I send it right out again, maybe with some revisions. Like they say about the state lottery, “if you don’t play, you can’t win.” Or, perhaps more appropriate, our state lottery’s new motto, “Anything can happen in Jersey.”

My story “Duplex” has logged a lot of cyberspace miles, and I’m delighted to say it has now been published online (available free to YOU) on the website, The Green Shoe Sanctuary. This good news prompted me to think back to the story’s origins.

If you live in the northeast, you’ll know that here, at least, duplex houses (one above, one below or side-by-side) are fairly common. Driving home one day, I passed a duplex on a sharply angled corner lot that required one half to drop back a few feet. Immersed at the time in Little Dorrit, in which Arthur Clennam’s dismal family home is like another character, I thought, “If Charles Dickens saw that house, he’d make it part of the story—the withdrawn, unprepossessing side and the proud, thrust-forward side.” (At the end of Little Dorrit you read with relief that Clennam’s malignant house collapses.)

“Duplex” begins by explicitly stating this contrast and evoking Dickens. Only in the second paragraph does it move into the situation of the main character, Cordelia Faye Watters, a young Vietnam War widow in the 1960s. Here’s that opener:

If only a perceptive social commentator like Charles Dickens had dissected the significance of a particular two-family house in Pinterville, Virginia! Anyone could describe its remarkable physical appearance, divided down the middle like a discordant married couple, the two mismatched halves physically split. But only a Dickens would appreciate the possible impact of this arrangement on the house’s occupants. The disheveled half, on the left, hung back some twenty feet or more, while its tidy neighbor, porch painted white as good intentions, sat primly forward. This isn’t my usual crime/mystery story, clearly. Cordelia’s challenge is to open her eyes to the variety of riches and responsibilities of the world around her. I hope you’ll read it and let me know what you think!

Weekend Movie Pick: The Card Counter

OK, the new movie from writer-director Paul Schrader isn’t for everyone, but you can drastically increase it’s watchability if you shut your eyes during the rather brief flashbacks to the main character’s Iraq War experience (trailer). We all know terrible things were done in that faraway war, and this movie is grounded by their longlasting and inter-generational effects on two American soldiers (one already a suicide).

Most of the film, starring a brilliantly low-key Oscar Isaac as William Tell (a pseudonym he’s adopted that has numerous connotations), a modest-stakes card sharp who stays in the game by never betting too much or past the point when his consistent wins might rouse casino security’s suspicions. He’s served time in federal prison and, he says, “that’s where I learned to count cards.”

Tell is a loner, traveling from casino to casino. (The film was mostly shot in Biloxi, Mississippi; casinos look pretty much the same inside.) He’s approached by two people—Cirk, pronounced Kirk, a young man (Tye Sheridan) who knows about Tell’s war experience and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish) who helps card players get financial backing for the big tournaments. At first, he turns them both down.

Cirk wants Tell’s help in assassinating one of the masterminds behind the torture of Iraqis. His target (Willem Dafoe) now runs a lucrative security consulting business. Tell refuses, seeing this quest as a good way for Cirk to ruin his life. He invites the young man to tag along with him in his travels, believing that if he can get enough money together to pay Cirk’s college loan debt and allow him to finish his education, he’ll be diverted from his current destructive path. A little life experience may help too. To acquire sufficient cash, he needs help from La Linda.

The other gamblers—dressed in the stars and stripes, wearing cowboy hats, and other distinctive garb—contrast with Tell’s shades-of-gray wardrobe. Likewise, the casinos’ garish rainbow of light is the opposite of the stark interiors of Tell’s motel rooms. He removes all the pictures and (in a Christo moment) wraps everything, even the legs of furniture, in a cocoon of white cloth. Is this a belated attempt to make things clean? Nights, Tell is too disciplined to party. He writes in his journal, attempting to explain or even expiate the past, knowing it is impossible. You get his words in voiceover, and while they aren’t memorable, they are essential. To him, and to you.

This is a movie about regret in different forms. Cirk’s regret that his father was so damaged and is lost to him and Tell’s that he can’t forgive himself. It’s also a movie about the fragility of hope—the hope the characters have for each other, and the hope all gamblers clutch to their hearts.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 85% ; audiences: 46%. (Put me in that group!)

False Witness

The standalone thriller begins in the summer of 1998, with the uneasy relationship between Callie and Buddy, which, for his part, seems to revolve solely around sex, rough sex, and keeping his ten-year-old son from knowing what he’s up to.

Then it’s spring 2021, and Callie’s sister Leigh is called on at the last minute to defend an especially brutal serial rapist. Leigh works for a prestigious Atlanta, Georgia, law firm and has only days before jury selection begins. The demeanor of the defendant, Andrew Tenant, puts her off, but she can’t say no without risking her job. Soon she realizes her creepy new client is the grown-up boy from long-ago, when she and Callie were his baby-sitters.

Something bad happened back in 1998, involving Callie and Leigh, and they’ve kept the secret ever since. To Leigh’s dismay, Andrew uses what he knows about it to manipulate her into mounting a vigorous and unethical defense. No matter that she’s convinced he’s guilty.

Leigh is afraid to sabotage the defense in any way, certain that Andrew would not hesitate to harm the people she loves, including Callie. Callie has long-standing substance abuse problems, and some of the most poignant parts of the story are her attempts to calibrate the drugs in her system so she can cope with the demands posed by Andrew’s threats.

There are both good characters and bad in this novel, and the good ones are treated with respect and compassion, despite their flaws. Oh, and wait until you meet Callie and Leigh’s mother! A library full of child-rearing advice wouldn’t have changed her behavior an iota!

The story is set in the midst of the pandemic, and though it’s not about covid, the characters’ everyday lives are affected by it—to mask (or not), the erratic court schedule. The disease is part of the realistic environment of the story. Slaughter, who lives in Atlanta, set the novel there, though it’s not a novel in which place plays a dominant role. Occasionally, the author breaks in and delivers a lecture on, for example, the way drug addiction affects the brain, which derails the story for a few paragraphs and feels unnecessary. Readers put off by cursing will have much to complain about.

I personally found Leigh too repetitive and tiresome with her guilt and self-doubt and her willingness to jump to (consistently wrong) conclusions about what other people are feeling. It felt cliché to make Andrew super-wealthy, and he was over-the-top slimy, but then a psychopath would be extreme, no? Those quibbles aside, the book held my interest and I found more to like than not.

Here’s a recent interview with Karin Slaughter related to this book.

Order False Witness here from Amazon.

Or here from IndieBound.

We Begin at the End

The annual lists of crime, mystery, and thriller award winners and nominees always reveal gems I’ve missed, like Chris Whitaker’s much-lauded We Begin at the End. The audio version is narrated by George Newbern with absolute fidelity to the different characters and where their heads are in the moment.

One of the protagonists is Chief Walker, whom everyone calls Walk, the long-time police chief of Cape Haven, a small town on the California coast. Walk, in his mid-forties, tries hard to keep his community from changing. In fact, he’d much prefer to go back in time about thirty years to before the hit-and-run in which his best friend Vincent King killed seven-year-old Sissy Radley.

Vincent received a ten-year sentence at an adult prison, with twenty more tacked on when he killed another inmate in a fight. The novel starts just before Vincent is released from prison and Walk is bringing him home to what promises to be a chilly welcome.

Before he can reclaim his friend, Walk is approached by two children—Duchess Radley, 13, and her brother Robin, five. Their mother has overdosed again, and Walk helps them get her to the hospital. Star Radley has been going off the deep end with increasing frequency. When they were all teenagers, Star and Vincent were a couple, part of a foursome that included Walk and Martha May, and it’s obvious that Walk remains deeply loyal to all of them.

The other main character is Star’s daughter, Duchess, who styles herself an outlaw and goes about proving it. Foul-mouthed and take-no-guff, Duchess has an uncritical eye only for her little brother. He has a lioness defending him.

Tragedy strikes, and Vincent King is once more accused of murder. Despite Walk’s pleading, Vincent won’t say a word in his defense, except that he wants Walk’s former girlfriend, Martha May, to defend him. She’s a family lawyer, and approaching her about Vincent’s case is a difficult journey into the past for them both.

Duchess and Robin are sent to live in Montana with a grandfather they’ve never met, and Duchess is determined not to like him or the ranch or Montana or her new school or anything else. You ache to see her fighting the relationships that would be good for her. You’ve probably known teenagers like this; perhaps you were one yourself.

The story includes many strong secondary characters, some of whom are quite admirable. Even those who do bad things are fully developed and drawn with compassion. Not a roller-coaster of a thriller, this book is more like a slow train through a darkening woods. The journey includes plenty of hazards, both physical and emotional, as it steadily, inexorably, carries you forward. If you take that train ride, you’ll find it’s both moving and memorable. There’s a small, but telling reveal near the end that stopped me, even though it had been in front of me all the time. And if you can do the audio version—do it! Newbern’s narration is flawless.

Order from Amazon here. Or here from your local Indie bookstore.

Singing ‘The Color Purple’

No, not people with synesthesia, but the eponymous song from the musical The Color Purple, was the subject of my second Zoom class on interpreting songs. Led by noted song interpreter Felicia Curry, this class is sponsored by Theatre J in Washington DC. Felicia appeared in The Color Purple in 2014 and is scheduled to do the show again next summer.

When the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Alice Walker came out in 1982, I read it, and I saw the film three years later with Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in their first movie roles. Still, reading the synopsis helped me appreciate the lyrics of the musical adaptation. We also read a profile of the trio who wrote the music and lyrics (Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray), and unlike the creator of the song we studied last week—Stephen Sondheim—these three had never written for a musical before. Willis had no musical training and, a pop musician, she wasn’t familiar with the musical genre. Russell was an R&B artist and songwriter with a jazzy bent, and Bray had written hits for Madonna. Yet, this unlikely threesome created artistic magic. Well, they and 17 networked Macs. The result was a rich mix of music with blues, pop, funk and gospel influences.

According to a New York Times interview with Willis by Susan Dominus, the team had to learn to accommodate the plot-driven and visual demands of musical theater. Lyrics needed to connect to action, and usually involved some behavior. The story connection is critical to Curry. She said she always asks herself, “Why is this a song?” a question I pondered too.

Probably you can readily think of many circumstances in which a song is a strong substitute for dialog. One is when enthusiasm just bursts out of a character (“O, what a beautiful morning” from Oklahoma or “On the street where you live” from My Fair Lady). Another is when a powerful emotion washes over the character (“Love look away” from Flower Drum Song, “This nearly was mine” from South Pacific, “Me and the sky” from Come From Away). Sometimes the thrumming of the music and lyrics sets the audience up for what’s to come (“Tonight” in West Side Story or “1956: Budapest is rising” from Chess). There are many reasons to have a song, but each one should have a story purpose, not merely a tuneful filler.

Originally, the composers of The Color Purple hadn’t planned a song built around the show title, but one day, when they were struggling with a musical response to Celie’s profound admission that she was losing sight of God, Willis came up with the lyric that’s now “Like a plate of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all a part of me. Like the color purple, where do it come from? Open up your eyes, look what God has done.” It worked so well, a version is used to close the show too, memorably performed here by Cynthia Erivo and Jennifer Hudson.

Revisited: The Water Knife

By Paolo Bacigalupi, narrated by Almarie Guerra – Recent news about the drought in the American Southwest reminds me to revisit this excellent 2015 thriller that pits governments against each other and new technology (interesting in itself) benefits some people more than others (go figure). Set in the not-too-distant future, Bacigalupi’s story uses real-life issues as a springboard, adds in toxic intergovernmental rivalries and a healthy dose of greed. It’s an exciting and thought-provoking tale.

In Bacigalupi’s Southwest, Nevada (specifically Las Vegas), Arizona, and California are battling over a dwindling water supply caused by climate change, population pressure, and brazen political brokering. The situation has escalated, with states declaring their sovereignty, closing their borders, and enforcing interstate transit rules with armed militias that shoot to kill. Zoners (Arizonans) have few ways to make a living, and those with weapons prey on the desperate poor. To have water is to be rich or, as the saying goes, “water flows toward money.” The wealthy have bought their way into “arcologies”—high-rise buildings with complex plant and aquatic ecosystems for recycling and recirculating virtually every drop.

In Las Vegas, the Cypress arcologies were built by Catherine Case, nicknamed the Queen of the Colorado River, and head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Las Vegas is to some extent thriving, because of her cunning and cutthroat tactics. But Phoenix is dying.

Angel Velasquez, one of the book’s three protagonists, is an ex-prison inmate—smart, ruthless, a “water knife” who works for Case, cutting other people’s water supplies. Lucy Monroe is a Phoenix-based Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and social media star (#PhoenixDowntheTubes) who just might have a lead on some serious water rights, and Maria Villarosa is a highly disposable Texas refugee barely surviving in Phoenix and at the constant mercy of a brutal gang headed by “the Vet,” who throws enemies to his pack of hyenas.

Angel must visit Phoenix to investigate the mutilation death of one of Catherine Case’s undercover operatives, and the plot really starts to flow. He finds Phoenix swimming with Calis—Californians also working undercover to assure that state’s gluttonous water requirements are met, regardless what happens to everyone upriver. Before long, all the players are after the same thing—original water rights documents that would supersede everything on the books—and no one is sure who has them.

While the story is a critique of a policy environment in which local interests are allowed to supersede regional and federal goals, it never reads like a political tract. And, while quite a bit is imparted about the issue of water rights and reclamation strategies, it isn’t a legal or scientific tome, either. It’s a thriller about a compelling trio of people with different motivations, different places in the water aristocracy, and different strategies for coping. The drought, dust, and poverty that envelop Angel, Lucy, and Maria and their cities affect everyone who lives there. “Somehow they hadn’t been able to see something that was plain as day, coming straight at them.”

A lot of powerful straight journalism has been written recently about water rights, droughts, agricultural demand, and intergovernmental bickering about rights. This important novel makes the stakes eminently—and memorably—clear.

Almarie Guerra does a solid narration, putting just the right Latino topspin on the Mexican voices.

Order here from Amazon, or from your local indie bookstore.

As of July 2021, Lake Mead, the nation’s largest water reservoir by volume, is at 37% of capacity.

Coming Attractions

Detective Montalbano

Here’s an encomium for one of the most entertaining TV crime series ever—Italy’s Detective Montalbano. Read why it’s so popular, how it was made, and watch clips of the earliest episodes, with a preview for the very last one, coming July 6. We’ve watched all the seasons so far at our house, including the bonus interviews with actors, author, and crew.

Luca Zingaretti, who plays the taciturn Salvo Montalbano is especially interesting. He’s played the role so long, it’s fascinating to hear him display his deep understanding of the role and the values the late author, Andrea Camilleri imbued his creation with.

When the director insisted the show be filmed in Sicily (to the RAI backers’ skepticism), they visited the island’s community and regional theaters to find quintessential Sicilians to play the bit parts—the gossipy landlady of the deceased, the creepy boyfriend, the femme fatale sister—and, believe me, these actors make the most of it!

If you do visit the link above, at the bottom of the story, you’ll see reference to the Young Montalbano series. All the main characters in their younger days, with different actors channeling the later portrayals. A delightful way to feed your obsession! Both series have subtitles, but don’t let that put you off. Honestly, the Italian body language is so transparent, you begin to feel you don’t need them!

When we were in Sicily two years ago, there were Montalbano tours all over the southern region, pointing out places where this or that was filmed, primarily in the charming town of Ragusa (above).

The Unforgotten

Season 4 of the award-winning London-based police procedural about a cold case team returns to PBS, Sunday, July 11. Nicola Walker is brilliant as the lead detective with Sanjeev Bhaskar as her second. There’s a strong and believable relationship between them, and an appreciation of the long-lasting impact murder has on those left behind, handled admirably. Good, solid mysteries too (trailer).

Get Your Motor Running

Fifty-two years ago, Columbia Pictures released the low-budget film, Easy Rider (peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) and saw its $400,000 investment balloon into more than $60 million in box office. Never an industry to ignore the possibility of a big payday, Hollywood got its motor running and two years later, the studios offered American audiences a rich diet of long hair, antisocial behavior, and oddball relationships.

With predictable results.

Despite the tepid audience reaction, in 1971, the industry here and in Britain produced intense, dramatic, even arty films that defy the year’s overall poor box office numbers. Film historian Max Alvarez highlighted a number of them in a Zoom program yesterday. Here are the ones I remember seeing that year. Remember these?

A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of a book by Anthony Burgess starring Malcolm McDowell. In a dystopian London, a crime spree is led by a young man obsessed with “ultra-violence” (everyday fare in 2021). Warner Brothers.

Klute – Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland star in this noir drama about a high-priced call girl who helps a detective solve the case of a business executive who’s gone missing. Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and I fell in love with Donald Sutherland. There’s a talkback about this film on Sunday, 6/27. (free, but register)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth – starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. What I most remember about this were complaints about “so much blood.” 1971 was the year Charles Manson and his family were convicted of multiple murders, including that of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His response was that he’d seen that crime scene: “I know about blood.”

The French Connection – a crime thriller directed by William Friedkin, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as NYPD detectives in pursuit of a wealthy French heroin smuggler. Even if you’ve never seen the whole movie, you’ve probably seen the car chase. Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best actor (Hackman). 20th Century Fox.

The Last Picture Show – based on a book by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), with Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, and Cloris Leachman. Shot in black and white, it well portrays the bleakness of small-town life. Leachman and Johnson won Academy Awards for their supporting roles.

Harold and Maude – starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. This film was among the year’s subversive comedies that Alvarez highlighted. A flop at the box office, it found its way to college campuses where it became a cult classic.

The Hospital – this satire, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, starred George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, and Robert Walden. Academy award for best original screenplay. Here’s a great scene.

The film was inspired in part by the poor hospital care his wife received, and Chayefsky became so leery of medical treatment that he didn’t get optimal care for his cancer and died at age 58.

Now, In Theaters!

Finally breaking out of our covid-cocoon and our addiction to streaming, in the last week we’ve seen two movies in an actual big-screen movie theater. Neither was too challenging to our dulled senses, whereas the previews of superhero films the theatres blasted at us were overwhelming, not in a good way.

Dream Horse

We’re suckers for horsy movies, and this pleasant film about a working class Welsh woman who gets the notion to raise a thoroughbred racehorse, though based on a true story, hits all the predictable Hollywood beats. Wild ambition, success, setback, and so on. Directed by Euros Lyn, the film stars Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, and Welsh actor Owen Teale (trailer). No new dramatic ground broken, but it eases you back into your theater seat. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 97%.

Enjoyment of the film is marred by awareness of the current state of U.S. thoroughbred racing, including the tanking reputation of super-trainer Bob Baffert and William Finnegan’s article in the 24 May New Yorker, “Blood on the Tracks,” about the dozens of race-horses who have died recently, especially at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. Not an easy story to read if you love horses. As Finnegan points out, thoroughbred racing, “once the most popular spectator sport in America, has been in decline” for decades. Not because of high-minded animal rights concerns, but because it lost its near-lock on legal gambling before the pre-casino era.

In the Heights

A lively portrayal of the Latinx residents of Washington Heights, in sight of Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway version (trailer), has not one, but two love stories! And expands the definition of family. The stars are engaging, the production numbers huge, and the music toe-tapping.

Anthony Ramos stars as the bodega owner who longs to return to the Dominican Republic where he says he had “the best days of my life.” Fans of Hamilton will find Miranda’s lyrics as entertaining and cleverly rhymed as ever. Sets and costumes are colorful and fun. Loved the food! Apparently the Rotten Tomatoes critics did too, giving it 96%; audiences, 95%.

Preceding the film was a thank-you and welcome back to the movie theater from Miranda, Chu, and one of the film’s writer-producers, Quiara Alegría Hudes.

This film is more directly linked to controversy than Dream Horse. Here’s Lin-Manuel’s Twitter response to criticisms the film lacks sufficient Afro-Latino lead characters.